Previous month:
July 2014
Next month:
September 2014

#blogElul 5: Know

Blogelul2014-1KNOW (ELUL 5)

It's time to wake up.
The shofar is sounding.
This is real:
open your eyes.

The shofar is sounding
a call to remember.
Open your eyes.
Who have you become?

A call to remember
you could have been kinder.
Who have you become
since last we gathered?

You could have been kinder.
Don't take it too hard:
since last we gathered
no one's been perfect.

Don't take it too hard.
You're loved anyway.
No one's been perfect.
The leaves are turning.

You're loved anyway.
The moon waxes brighter.
The leaves are turning.
Where are your loose ends?

The moon waxes brighter
as the work grows more urgent.
Where are your loose ends?
We all have the same heart.

As the work grows more urgent
where is your mind torn?
We all have the same heart.
God's door is open.

Where is your mind torn?
This is real.
God's door is open.
It's time to wake up.

Many of the ideas in this poem are drawn from Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, which I slowly re-read every year at this season.

I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

#BlogElul 4: Accept

Blogelul2014-1ACCEPT (ELUL 4)

The leaves will turn
then let go.

The days will flicker
like candle stubs.

The woman tethered
to a toxic drip

will get better
or she won't.

The child in me shouts
it isn't fair --

as though I could change
God's mind, rewind

the fallen leaves
to spring chartreuse.

The process of writing today's poem began with the idea that where I get myself into trouble (where I suspect we all get ourselves into trouble) is wanting things to be different than they are. Some things are changeable, of course. But others aren't. Time, for instance, flows in only one direction.

Accepting what is can be a powerful spiritual practice. What changes in me if I make the conscious choice to accept instead of to fight? How do I gauge when I should be working on accepting what is, and when I should be working on changing the world? Good questions for this fourth day of Elul.


I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

#blogElul 3: Bless

Blogelul2014-1BLESS (ELUL 3)

What         do we bless
I ask        and you point:
first flames    then goblets
then bread        braided smooth
my lips        brush your forehead

d'var acher        another view:
Blessed is        the One
who opens doors        into holiness
and implants         meristem cells            
into grape vines        coiling

Blessed is        potential
curled tight        in the kernel
of every grain        we mill and bake
bless infinity        translated into cosmos
creation's atoms        persist in us

"D'var acher" means "another viewpoint" (literally it means either "another word" or "another thing.") It's a common rabbinic way of shifting from one opinion to another.

I'm interested in our common parlance about blessings -- we say that we bless candles, juice, bread, though in truth our blessing formula teaches that we bless God Who makes and sanctifies these.

Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate!


I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

#blogElul 2: Act

Blogelul2014-1ACT (ELUL 2)


Remember standing in the wings
chest full of butterflies

listening for the cue
to step forward and speak?

You could look at scuffed wood
and remember the masking tape

that told you where to stand.
And when you said your piece

you knew the response
before the words rang out.

Today there is no such luxury.
Improvise your lines.

Work with whatever emotions
well up behind your eyes.

Comedy may veer to tragedy
and back without warning.

The curtain never goes down.
The reviewer is always watching.

Good news: I hear she's inclined
toward mercy if you keep it real.



I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

#blogElul 1: Do

Blogelul2014-1DO (ELUL 1)


I didn't have perfect faith.
I didn't trust the world
with my eggshell heart.
I didn't notice
each miraculous instant.

I cut sandwiches
into small triangles. I read
about the little blue truck
and the friendly tractor.
I sang every night.

I tried to say thank you
even if the food were already
in my mouth, even if the day
were already underway
by the time I blessed the coffee.

What words did I inscribe
in the book of memory?
I wanted to write kindness
more often than I scrawled
impatience. I wanted

to practice compassion
when my son woke me
when traffic slowed me
when strangers smeared
my inbox with anger.

The camera is always rolling.
Play back the year
snacking on popcorn
with the Kadosh Baruch Hu,
see what the record shows.

"Kadosh Baruch Hu" is Hebrew for "The Holy One of Blessing," e.g. God.


I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David on "women's mitzvot" and transcending gender binaries

Front-coverLast night I went to hear Rabbi Haviva Ner-David speak in Pittsfield at an event co-presented by Congregation Beth Israel (my shul), Knesset Israel, Hevreh, and and Rimon Center for Jewish Spirituality. Here's how we described the event on the flyers:

Rabba Haviva Ner-David is an author, pioneer in Jewish women’s post-denominational thinking, wife, and mother of seven living on Kibbutz Hanaton. She is also a dynamic speaker coming to share the experiences and thinking which led to her latest book: Chana’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing and Brightening (new from Ben Yehuda Press).

All genders are invited to join us for a talk followed by light refreshments and an opportunity to chat with the author and get books autographed.

I'd actually heard Rabbi Ner-David speak a few years ago at the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh conference Gathering the Waters -- I blogged about her remarks in the post The emerging mikveh movement in Israel. I've been a fan of her work for a long time, ever since I first read Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination.

She began her remarks by explaining how the process of writing her first memoir led to the spiritual and intellectual inquiry of this second book. "Life on the Fringes was about my childhood growing up Modern Orthodox in New York," she explained, "and my struggles as a feminist with Orthodoxy and tradition, and my decision to study to become a rabbi -- but wanting to get Orthodox rabbinic ordination."

That first book is memoir mixed with halakhic interpretation (Jewish-legal analysis), and one of its main themes is is women's role in tradition. Hair covering, women studying Torah, taking on the obligations which only men are technically obligated to perform -- the "positive time-bound mitzvot." (I've written about those before: Time-bound, 2010.) It occurred to me, as I heard her speak, that the combination of memoir and halakhic interpretation makes me think of midrash aggadah and midrash halakha, the interweaving of narrative and legal interpretation which makes up so much of classical Jewish tradition.

She wrote in Life on the Fringes about tallit and tefillin -- things which (in her Modern Orthodox childhood) men did, and women didn't do. Chanah's Voice explores how she came to recognize that in focusing so strongly on claiming tallit and tefillin for herself, she had neglected the mitzvot which women are traditionally obligated to perform. "I didn't know when I started writing the book what I was going to find," she noted. "But I decided to spend that year struggling with these three mitzvot."

The three mitzvot which are traditionally considered womens' mitzvot are challah (taking challah -- when one bakes a certain amount of bread, one is supposed to take out a portion of the dough and set it aside for the priests, and since today we don't have priests, one sets it aside and burns it), niddah (after menstruation one counts a certain number of days and then immerses in a mikveh before engaging in sexual relations again) and hadlakat ha-ner (lighting shabbat candles.) Together they're known by the acronym ChaNaH, which is a nifty confluence because Chanah is the Biblical figure who is considered to have invented prayer.

"As a feminist, I had a lot of baggage around all three of these [mitzvot]," she admitted, and all the women in the room chuckled.

Continue reading "Rabbi Haviva Ner-David on "women's mitzvot" and transcending gender binaries" »

Seeking peace

Seek+peaceLately I've been working on finding the right balance between paying attention to the world and its many injustices, and cultivating an internal sense of peacefulness and compassion. Against this backdrop, a friend recently shared with me a teaching from her Buddhist practice. According to this way of thinking, if one increases one's own suffering, one adds to the suffering of the universe; if one increases one's own peacefulness, one adds to the peacefulness of the universe.

My first reaction, upon hearing this, was that it's a way of justifying contemplative practice. It's easy (for some folks) to knock prayer and contemplative practice by saying that we who engage in prayer and contemplative practice aren't "doing anything" to heal the broken world, and that therefore these spiritual practices are self-centered at best. But in this Buddhist way of thinking, if I can cultivate peace and compassion in my heart, I will add to the overall peace and compassion of the whole cosmos.

This makes some sense to me. If I can cultivate peace and compassion, I'm likelier to relate to others with those qualities instead of with impatience or anger. When I am feeling grounded and mindful and kind, I think I'm a better parent; I suspect I'm also a better partner, rabbi, and friend. That's a small-scale change which might have a ripple effect. But can my acts of meditation and prayer shift the peacefulness in the cosmos in a bigger-picture way? When I work on myself, do I really change the universe?

The Zohar speaks of itaruta d'l'ila and itaruta d'l'tata, "arousal from above" and "arousal from below." Sometimes God pours blessing, love, divine shefa down into creation entirely of God's own accord, and that divinity streaming into creation further awakens us. That's (what the Zohar calls) arousal from above. And other times it is we who initiate the connection -- with our cries and prayers and contemplation, we stimulate the flow of blessing and abundance from on high. That's arousal from below.

Contemplative practices -- meditation, prayer, chant, even the internal work of teshuvah (repentance or return) which is the primary focus of the coming month of Elul and the holidays which follow -- are practices designed to facilitate that arousal from below. When we cultivate peacefulness, or enter into teshuvah, or make a conscious effort to practice kindness, perhaps we awaken parallel qualities on high. At least, that's how the Zohar understands it. Our prayers and meditations can awaken God.

The psalmist teaches "turn from evil and do good; seek shalom/peace and pursue it." (psalm 34:14) We usually understand shalom to mean peace and wholeness in an external sense, between people(s). But I wonder whether we can also read it as an instruction to seek internal peacefulness. Maybe when I cultivate peace within myself, I stimulate the divine flow of more peace into the world. (Or, in the Buddhist framing with which this post began, I add to the net peacefulness of the universe.)

"Seek peace and pursue it" seems at first to be repetitive. If I'm seeking it, surely that means I'm pursuing it too, right? But our sages teach that there are no extraneous words in Torah -- or at least that we can find or make meaning even in the most apparently repetitive of phrases. Ergo there must be a difference between "seeking" peace and "pursuing" it. All well and good, but what might that difference be? Here's one traditional answer, from the collection of midrash called Vayikra Rabbah:

Great is shalom, peace, because about all of the mitzvot in the Torah it is written, “If you happen upon,” “If it should occur,” “If you see,” which implies that if the opportunity to do the mitzvah comes upon you, then you must do it, and if not, you are not bound to do it. But in the case of peace, it is written, Seek peace, and pursue it—seek it in the place where you are, and pursue after it in another place. (Vayikra Rabbah 9:9)

In other words: the other mitzvot ask us to make certain choices when opportunity presents itself. But in the case of peace, we have to be proactive. We have to cultivate peace not only where we are, but also in the places where we haven't been yet (or where peace hasn't been yet). We have to cultivate external peace, and internal peacefulness, precisely in the places -- and the hearts and minds and souls -- which aren't yet peaceful. And when we do this work, we can hope that we awaken God on high to do the same.

On Project Daniel, 3D printing, and hope

Over coffee this morning, my friend Colin showed me a video which I found pretty extraordinary. It's about an endeavor called Project Daniel:

The video isn't new, but it was new to me. Here's how the project's creators describe it:

Just before Thanksgiving 2013, Mick Ebeling returned home from Sudan's Nuba Mountains where he set up what is probably the world's first 3D-printing prosthetic lab and training facility. More to the point of the journey is that Mick managed to give hope and independence back to a kid who, at age 14, had both his arms blown off and considered his life not worth living.

I'd heard about 3D printing, but I'd never actually seen a 3D printer in action, or seen the kinds of things one can create. In my mind, 3D printing was more or less the stuff of science fiction -- Rule 34 by Charles Stross, or Maker Space by KB Spangler. But as this video demonstrates, this technology is very real -- and while I'm sure it's being used for a lot of delightfully silly purposes, it can also be turned to really meaningful forms of service.

Just prior to the trip, the now 16-year-old Daniel was located in a 70,000 person refugee camp in Yida, and, on 11/11/13 , he received version 1 of his left arm. The Daniel Hand enabled him to feed himself for the first time in two years... After Daniel had his own “hand,” with the help of Dr. Tom Catena, the team set about teaching others to print and assemble 3D prostheses. By the time the team returned to their homes in the U.S., the local trainees had successfully printed and fitted another two arms.

I don't want to glorify the "white savior swoops into Africa" narrative. An uncountable number of extraordinary things are done by Africans, in Africa, all the time, though they aren't often reported in American news media. (Take, for instance, the story of William Kamkwamba and his windmill.) But what's remarkable about this story to me isn't Mick Ebeling per se, but the fact of a technology which can create functional prosthetic limbs cheaply, and the look of joy on Daniel's face when he holds a spoon in his new hand and lifts it to his mouth without aid.

It turns out this kind of thing is happening here in the States, too. E-nabling the Future is "a network of passionate volunteers using 3D printing to give the World a 'Helping Hand.'" They design 3D-printable prosthetic limbs and make the designs available under Creative Commons:

We are engineers, artists, makers, students, parents, occupational therapists, prosthetists, garage tinkerers, designers, teachers, creatives, philanthropists, writers and many others – who are devoting our “Free time” to the creation of open source designs for mechanical hand assistive devices that can be downloaded and 3D printed for less than $50 in materials.

Our designs are open source – so that anyone, anywhere – can download and create these hands for people who may need them and so that others can take these designs and improve upon them and once again share with the World in a “Pay it Forward” type of way.

People are using this technology to make new limbs for toddlers, and new hands for veterans. And because the designs are available online as open-source materials, freely available for use and for remix, they're available for anyone who needs them.

At a moment in time when there's so much tragedy and trauma in the world -- Syria, Israel and Gaza, Ferguson, the list goes on and on -- I'm grateful to be reminded that there are people in the world who are giving their time and energy to help others, and to make the world a kinder and more functional place.

Poem linked from Slate

Thanks, Slate, for linking to my poem about the "next highest turnpike elevation" sign in What Does This Beloved Road Sign on the Massachusetts Turnpike Actually Mean?

(The poem is one I wrote in 2007, spurred by a prompt which invited the writing of poetry about road signs. It's here: Cross-Country Drive, 1996.)

The Slate piece also taught me a bunch of things about that road sign and about I-90 which I didn't already know. So that's pretty neat.

Dear everyone else: if you're here via that Slate link and wondering just where you've landed, hello and welcome! Check out my About page and/or my list of Favorite Posts. Pull up a chair, stay a while.

Glimpses of the Remembering Reb Zalman Shabbaton


Arriving back at this OMNI gives me a peculiar sort of Brigadoon feeling. Even though I know that my hevre (beloved study-friends) have been geographically scattered since we last met, when I return here and they are here too, it feels as though this place and this community have just been waiting for me to walk in again. The moment I walk in the door, I see people I know and love all over the lobby, chatting and checking in and hanging out, and it feels like home.

I knew that our community would continue long beyond Reb Zalman's time on this plane. I have been certain of this for years -- at least intellectually. And yet there's something in me which needed proof; needed to feel that the connections of our community are as real as they ever were, even though he is gone. Being together, remembering him together, matters so much to me right now.

It is wonderful to be here. And yet I see Rebbetzin Eve (Ilsen) walking through the lobby and it's still hard to believe that Reb Zalman isn't walking beside her. The sweet and the heart-clenching, all in one moment.



The bracelets we're given at registration, which we will need to wear in order to get into the Sunday "A Heart As Big As The World" event at the Boulder theatre, are not flimsy fluorescent-colored plastic like the wristbands I've received in other places. These are made of what feels like recycled paper, nubbly and rough. Then I realize that they are made of handmade paper which contains wildflower seeds. The idea is that we will each take our bracelet home, plant it, and come up with wildflowers. This feels like ALEPH in a nutshell -- sweet, lovely, a little bit orthogonal to the way most people do things, not only eco-conscious but striving to bring more beauty into the world.



Rabbi Arthur Green (or "Reb Art," as he has asked us to call him) begins the weekend with a beautiful teaching about the shema. First he tells us that if his Torah sounds familiar and like Reb Zalman's in many ways, it's because over the decades of their friendship Reb Zalman's Torah became part of him. (After Reb Zalman's earthly deployment ended, Reb Art wrote a beautiful piece about his relationship with Zalman -- My mentor, teacher, dear friend.)

The shema, he points out, isn't a prayer, because it has no atah, no You. It's not spoken to the One, there's no I/Thou interaction. In the shema, everything is One; there's no "us" and "God," there's just the unity of all things. Atah, he notes further, is spelled aleph-tav (the first and last letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet -- what in Greek would be the alpha and omega) and heh, which is the letter of breath and of Shekhinah. Put those together and you get atah, connoting "from beginning to end, enlivened with spirit"!

But the shema has no atah. What it has is unity. And the first line of the shema is sandwiched between the love-prayer of ahavah rabbah / ahavat olam ("a great love," "an eternal love," which our liturgy teaches God has for us), and the love-prayer of the v'ahavta ("And you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart..."). Love leads us to oneness; oneness leads us back to love.

The final paragraph of the shema speaks of tzitzit, the fringes which are intended to remind us of the mitzvot. Reb Art notes that tzitzit is a feminine word, but in the paragraph we chant daily we say the words u'ritem oto, "you shall look upon (masculine) it." It, or perhaps him, not her. (I usually gloss over that when I sing the rendering in English.) So what is the oto on which we're meant to look, if not the tzitzit? His answer is -- God. And he gives us the image of holding up the tzitzit like fringes in a curtain: we're on one side looking at God, and God's on the other side looking at us.



At the beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat, Rebbitzen Eve leads us in an imaginal exercise of filling our innermost hearts with light and then sharing that light with a loved one, and then she kindles the Shabbat lights. She also leads us in a shehecheyanu -- an extraordinary moment of bittersweet celebration. I don't think anyone else would have had the chutzpah to suggest reciting that blessing which thanks God for keeping us alive until this moment. But when Reb Zalman's widow begins the bracha, all of our voices ring out with hers.

Shir Yaakov and Reb Sarah Bracha lead a song-filled Kabbalat Shabbat service, which is exactly the right gentle ramp I needed in order to transition from home to here, from anticipating this weekend to actually being in it, from workweek to sacred time. Shir Yaakov notes, as we begin, that this room in which we are sitting -- the room in which I was ordained! -- is full, so full, of history and memories. That's the starting place from which our prayers will arise.

For me the sweetest parts are singing part of Lecha Dodi to the melody of the bati l'gani niggun which Reb Zalman wrote in memory of Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, his rebbe; and singing Reb Shlomo's psalm 92 variation ("The whole wide world is waiting, to sing a song of Shabbat..."); and singing some of Shir Yaakov's own melodies which I know from the Shir Yaakov / Romemu soundcloud but had never gotten to daven with him. At the end of the service, after the people who are in active mourning say the mourner's kaddish, Shir Yaakov quietly reads Reb Zalman's translation of mourner's kaddish. Hearing it read aloud in this place in this moment gives me chills.

I am so grateful to be in a room with so many of my hevre, my beloved friends, all of us singing and davening and rejoicing together. Seeing Reb Zalman's sons dancing in the impromptu hora line which snakes through the aisle. Adding my voice to the multipart harmony of our prayer.



And always there are the moments which defy description, which seem banal when written down but are glorious while they're happening. Discovering the small teepee on the hotel grounds (it's always wintertime when we're here for OHALAH; I'd never explored the gardens before); standing in it with friends and declaring it to be our ohel, our tent, which with intention we can transform into a mishkan, a dwelling-place for God; a few precious late evenings sitting with friends in the bank of Adirondack chairs in the night breeze, talking, connecting, laughing, telling stories, just being together. These are gifts beyond price.



Shabbat morning services are delicious. First Reb Arthur (Waskow) weaves a beautiful Torah discussion about the second paragraph of the shema. Then Reb Marcia (Prager) and Hazzan Jack (Kessler) lead a delicious psukei d'zimrah, the songs and psalms of praise designed to open up the heart. I especially love their use of part of "Bright Morning Stars Are Rising" (by Emmylou Harris) as a melodic container for the morning blessings. Also singing Psalm 150 to the tune of Miserlou, a melody which I associate with Pulp Fiction. (It suits the psalm surprisingly well.)

My friend Reb Hannah (Dresner) leads shacharit proper with tremendous sweetness. As I hear her sing, I remember how Reb Zalman used to beam when she led davenen. He loved how she refracts and translates Hasidut into her own feminine idiom. During the Torah service I'm honored with the opportunity to participate in leyning, chanting Torah. I chant, in Hebrew and English, the verses which I translated in the post Cut away the calluses on your heart. I offer a blessing for removing those hard places which obstruct our openheartedness -- and also a blessing for those who may be feeling as though their hearts are already raw, and who need salve and comfort in order to retain the openness with which we want to greet the world.

Reb Nadya and Reb Victor (Gross) lead us in the concluding prayers. Reb Victor tells some stories about Reb Zalman. And Reb Nadya leads us in an amazing Ein Keloheinu ("There Is No One Like God") interspersed with la illaha il'Allah ("there is no God but God.") Reb Zalman's, and by extension Jewish Renewal's, post-triumphalism and deep ecumenism were among the things which first drew my heart and soul here. This juxtaposition of our language for this truth about divinity, and our cousins' language for the same truth, is a beautiful illustration of the deep ecumenism which I so prize.



14760651190_b0d3dce299_nSunday morning, 10am, the Boulder Theater. As the crowd gathers in this beautiful art deco building, Reb Zalman's voice is pouring out of the speakers, singing songs and niggunim, while a slide show of his life is cascading across the big screen.

Reb Tirzah (Firestone) opens the event with words of welcome, and her presence helps to hold the container in which the whole event unfolds. Father Matthew Fox offers a stunning opening benediction which is also a reflection on Reb Zalman's life and work. Charles Lief, a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the president of Naropa University where Reb Zalman for years held the World Wisdom Chair, speaks beautifully about Reb Zalman's breadth of knowledge and of passions. (Truly, he says, it was more of a World Wisdom Loveseat, because Rebbitzen Eve was always by his side sharing her wisdom, too.)

Hearing Reb Art (Green) talk about Reb Zalman, his importance, his work, his legacy, is incredible. "When his soul reached heaven," he says (or something along these lines -- I'm paraphrasing), "God did not ask him why he was not Yochanan ben Zakkai, founding a new way of learning in a time of paradigm shift. God did not ask him why he was not the Arizal, master of kabbalistic wisdom. God did not ask him why he was not the Baal Shem Tov, bringing devotional practice to the people. God did not even ask him why he wasn't Reb Zusya, the holy fool!" Because Reb Zalman was all of these and more.

Throughout the event, spoken word reminiscences are interspersed with song. Hearing Hazzan Richard Kaplan sing is incredible, especially when he sings the Baal Shem Tov's Yedid Nefesh and closes his eyes and is visibly transported to other realms. He takes us there with him, and I remember how Reb Zalman used to love to listen to him bringing life to these old and deep Hasidic melodies. His singing becomes the vehicle which carries us aloft.

Singing along with Shir Yaakov and the band as they play his Or Zarua is the first thing that really cracks my heart open. "Light is sown for the righteous, and for the upright of heart, joy" -- surely Reb Zalman sowed seeds of light wherever he went, and now in whatever realm his soul inhabits, surely there is joy. The whole theatre is singing, and I know I am not the only one singing through tears.

That's not the only time that weeping overcomes me. When Rebbitzen Eve gets up with the piano and band and sings "Here's to Life," by Artie Butler, a torch song of love and embracing life to the fullest -- when she walks over toward his big rebbe chair, sitting in a spotlight at the edge of the stage, empty but for the rainbow tallit he designed -- my tears fall again. I cannot begin to imagine the depth of her loss.

When we watch the (never-before-broadcast) video of the address "The Emerging Cosmology," given at the Roundtable Dialogue With Nobel Laureates in Vancouver ten years ago (which explains why His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu and other luminaries were seated on stage), I laugh and clutch at my heart. His fur streiml! His joking about looking like someone from Fiddler on the Roof, and then breaking into song! His Star Trek "mind meld" answer to the teenaged girl who asks him a question! And in between all of these sweet things, a powerful teaching about post-triumphalism and organismic thinking and how we need to care for our world.

We close with a Sufi zhikr, a practice in which we remember God through chanting divine names, which breaks my heart open even wider. We are singing three lines, interwoven: bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim, "in the name of the Compassionate, the Merciful;" ya salaam, ya shalom, may there be peace, God of peace; and a chant which Reb Tirzah tells us she wrote quite recently. "Reb Zalman asked if I would write a niggun when the time was right, to these words," she tells us, and then speaks the words tehi nishmato tzrurah bitzror ha-chayyim and they pierce my heart clean through, because they are a line from El Maleh Rachamim, the prayer we sing only in mourning. "May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life."

Murshid Allaudin Ottinger, a senior dervish of the Sufi Ruhaniat International, leads us in the zhikr. The full band plays: piano, violin which calls out like a human voice in jubilation and in grief, clarinet soaring high, three hand-drummers on different drums. The entire building is packed and we all rise and we sing and the melodic lines braid together. We are hand in hand, or arms around each other, or standing separately but swaying together as we sing: to one side, to the other side, forward. In the name of the One. Peace, God of peace. May his soul be bound up in eternal life. The zhikr builds and builds and I can feel how our singing and our prayer and our memories and our love are lifting Reb Zalman's neshamah higher and higher.

When the event ends my face is wet with tears and my heart is as wide-open as it can be. I am out of words, but I am so grateful, and so full of love.

Am I ready?

I've packed white linen skirt, white linen shirt, white kippah. When we welcome the Shabbat bride our whole community will be resplendent in white. I've packed my little jar of glitter so that I can sparkle for Shabbos not only metaphorically but literally.

I've packed Shabbat morning clothes, Shabbat relaxing clothes, something appropriate to wear to the Sunday celebration "A Heart As Big As the World." I've packed swimsuit and coverup, because hey, you never know, I might manage a Shabbos swim.

I've packed tallit and tefillin for Sunday morning, when we'll return to weekday consciousness though not quite yet to our ordinary lives again. I have boarding passes on my phone. In the world of assiyah, action and physicality, I'm about as ready as can be.

In the world of yetzirah, emotion, I'm not so sure. I know that it will be sweet to reconnect in person with my Jewish Renewal community, people who I otherwise wouldn't see again until next winter. But what will it feel like to be together for this reason?

In the world of briyah, intellect, I feel reasonably prepared -- and I also know that I'm going to experience this weekend in ways which transcend intellect and thought. No matter how much I think about this, thought can't prepare me for what lies ahead.

In the world of atzilut, spirit, I hope that the spark of divine light which enlivens my soul will derive joy from reconnecting with so many other sparks, and from coming together in celebration of the neshama klalit, the great soul who lifted us all up.



If you're going to be at the Remembering Reb Zalman weekend, the Shabbaton and/or the Sunday celebration of his life and work, I look forward to seeing you there. To everyone else, I hope your Shabbat is sweet, and thanks for reading, as always.

Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men


I've watched with grief and horror this week as stories have emerged of police shooting unarmed black men. Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Ezell Ford was shot by police in Los Angeles. Both of these deaths come on the heels of the death of Eric Garner, strangled by police in New York, only a few weeks ago. Mother Jones reports Four Unarmed Black Men Have Been Killed By Police In The Last Month.

I've been following the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag on Twitter. "If the police shot me," ask those who tweet with this hashtag, "what photograph of me would the news reports show?" The subtext is often: the news media would choose a photo which makes the victim look "like a thug," as though that justified the killing of an unarmed human being. (See the pair of photos enclosed in this post for an example of what that means.)

Bu7pN-ZIAAAmx_PI've been reading the essays which smart friends have shared, among them Black kids don't have to be college-bound for their deaths to be tragic. Jasmine Banks writes:

Let me be clear: Unarmed college hopefuls don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids heading to work or trade school don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids floundering aimlessly through life don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids who have been in trouble—even those who have been nothing but trouble—don't deserve to be shot.

The act of pinning the tragedy of a dead black teen to his potential future success, to his respectability, to his "good"-ness, is done with all the best intentions. But if you read between the lines, aren't we really saying that had he not been on his way to college, there'd be less to mourn?

Also The death of Michael Brown and the search for justice in black America. In that essay, Mychal Denzel Smith writes:

Michael Brown was robbed of his humanity. His future was stolen. His parent’s pride was crushed. His friends’ hearts were broken. His nation’s contempt for black youth has been exposed. A whole generation of young black people are once again confronted with the reality that they are not safe. Black America is left searching for that ever-elusive sense of justice. But what is justice?...

Counting the bodies is draining. With every black life we lose, we end up saying the same things. We plead for our humanity to be recognized. We pray for the lives of our young people. We remind everyone of our history. And then another black person dies.

Continue reading "Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men" »

This week's portion: cut away the calluses on your heart

DSCN5657WAt this weekend's Remembering Reb Zalman Shabbaton in Colorado a variety of my friends and colleagues will be collaborating on leading Shabbat davenen. I am humbled and honored to have the chance to leyn Torah on Shabbat morning. I was given the opportunity to choose the handful of verses from parashat Ekev which I wanted to leyn, and I chose Deuteronomy 10:12-19, which translate as follows:

And now, Israel: what does Adonai your God ask of you?
That with awe of the One, you walk in God's ways, and love God;
that you serve Adonai your God with all your heart and all your soul.
Keep God's connective-commandments and engraved-commandments
which I am giving to you today for your good / to improve your lives.
Behold: the heights of the heavens belong to God; the earth, and all that is upon it.
It was to your ancestors that God was drawn, out of love,
so that you, their descendants, continue to be chosen among all peoples even now.
Cut away, therefore, the calluses on your hearts; stiffen your necks no more.
For Adonai your God is the utmost and the highest (God of God, Lord of Lords.)
God: great, mighty, and awesome, Who doesn't play favorites and takes no bribe,
Who upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow
And loves the stranger, providing food and clothing.
Just so, you should love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

I initially chose these verse because I was drawn both to the beginning and to the end of this passage. I liked the exhortation to walk in God's ways and to relate to God both with awe and with love. I liked the exhortation to love the stranger, the Other, for we too have known Otherness and alienation. I imagined that I would offer a blessing, for those who come up for this aliyah, relating to these images. And I still resonate deeply with these verses.

But as I've been rehearsing these lines this week, what's really leapt out at me has been verse 16: "Cut away, therefore, the calluses on your heart, and stiffen your necks no more." Maybe it's standing out for me because of the way the Torah trope (the dots and dashes and symbols which indicate chanting melody) place emphasis on the instruction to cut away -- the melody rises like a waterfall flowing upward before gliding back down again.

And maybe it's resonating for me because I feel lately as though this is precisely what has been happening in me -- the calluses over my heart have been cut away, and my heart is open to the joy and the pain of the world. Every parent rejoicing, and every parent grieving. Every child who laughs, and every child who weeps. Everything that is good and beautiful and right in our world, and everything that is unjust and broken.

The great sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (in his essay "On Prayer") that prayer should be subversive, should shatter the pyramids of domination and cut away the calluses on our hearts. Lately I've been aiming to open up the prayerful opportunities in every moment regardless of whether I'm engaged in liturgical prayer. Even when I'm not reciting formal words of prayer, life offers opportunities to bare my callused heart.

We can choose to make a practice of opening our hearts, of removing the protective scar tissue of anger and mistrust and the need to be right -- or we may find that life does that work for us, stripping away our walls and our calluses through illness, depression, tragedy, or loss. I think it is easier, perhaps gentler, if we do the work ourselves. If we ourselves cut away the calluses we have formed through indifference and callousness.

It is not easy to walk through the world with our calluses removed, with our hearts open to the exultation and the grief. But this is what this passage asks of us. This is what spiritual practice asks of us. When we cut away our defenses, and truly see the anguish of the widow and the orphan, the mother sobbing for her child, the injustices of war, the horrors wrought by illness, we can't help but fulfill the commandment most oft-repeated in Torah, to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

This week as we prepare to remember our teacher, rebbe, colleague, and friend Rabbi Zalman Meshullam Hiyya Schachter-Shalomi, these verses remind us to keep our hearts open to our mourning and our loss. To keep our hearts open to the sorrows in the news. To actively seek to remove the calluses which would protect us from awareness of suffering. To face that which we don't want to face: in the world, and in ourselves.

This is what Torah asks us to do. Maybe because when we do this, we naturally unlock our store of compassion, which leads us to work to repair what is broken in our world. Maybe because this is part and parcel of relating to God in love and in awe, of walking in God's ways. And maybe because this is a deep spiritual practice through which we do the inner work of transformation, the refining of the soul, for which we are born into this world.


Image source: Circumcision of the Heart by Gwen Meharg.

Preparing to remember

Rrz-poster-300pxOn Friday morning I'm going to wake up shortly before 4am (ouch) and drive to the airport for a long-awaited trip to Colorado. I go there every January for the ALEPH smicha (ordination) ceremony and for the conference given by OHALAH, the association of Jewish Renewal clergy. This will be my first summertime trip there.

When I planned this trip, my intention was to participate in a celebration of Reb Zalman's 90th birthday. Now it will be  a celebration of his extraordinary life and legacy, and an opportunity to reconnect with my beloved Jewish Renewal community as we begin to prepare ourselves for the next era of Jewish Renewal and for whatever comes next.

(For more on Reb Zalman, zichrono livracha / may his memory be a blessing, I direct you to Remembering my rebbe, a post I shared here earlier this summer.)

The weekend is going to be action-packed. On Friday we'll have the opportunity to hear from Rabbi Art Green and to daven with Shir Yaakov, which is always a joy. On Shabbat morning services will be led by a variety of Jewish Renewal folks, including many of my teachers and friends. I'm honored to be participating in Shabbat morning services as well.

On Sunday there will be an event at the Boulder Theater, featuring Father Matthew Fox, Acharya, Judith Lief, Rabbi Art Green, and Chazzan Richard Kaplan, among others. We'll also have an opportunity to experience zhikr with Murshid Allaudin Ottinger and to hear an address from Reb Zalman which was given before His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and which has never before been aired.

I know it's going to be an extraordinary weekend, full of community and connection, togetherness, laughter and tears, memories and hopes.

You can read all about the weekend, and register for its various components (the Shabbaton, and/or just the Saturday night event, and/or just the Sunday event) at Kol ALEPH: Remembering Reb Zalman Update.

If you can't attend, the event will also be live-streamed, and you can register for that on the Kol ALEPH website, too.

To all who will be joining us in Boulder this weekend: I am looking so forward to being with you and to celebrating Shabbat in the embrace of this extraordinary community. And to all who won't be joining us: I hope you'll consider signing up for the livestream so that you can glimpse a little bit of the memory, celebration, tears, and wonder.

A morning prayer from Tom Montag

I've been fortunate enough to receive a copy of Tom Montag's new collection In This Place: Selected Poems 1982-2013. It merits an actual review, though I may not manage that until after the high holidays. (And I'm not sure I can do a better job than Peter at Slow Reads: Slow Reads | In This Place.) Meanwhile, I wanted to share one of the poems from the collection which I thought might resonate with y'all. Shabbat shalom!


Morning prayer

Bless the morning,
bless the light.

Bless the darkness
from which we sprang.

Bless our breakfast,
the biscuits, gravy.

Bless this table,
the wood it's made of.

Bless the trees and bees,
the wind, the birds

that sing. Bless those
who work, the work

they do. Bless those
who bless us, Lord,

and everything. Amen.

Putting down our burdens and choosing joy

6a0147e1be4964970b015433099c4f970c-500wiA few days ago we marked Tisha b'Av, the most sorrowful day on the Jewish calendar. And a few days from now, when the moon is full, we'll reach Tu b'Av, which was once one of the most joyful days of our year. According to Talmud, Tu B'Av was a day when women would go out into the fields and dance, choosing spouses from among the men who came to dance with them. They would wear white dresses, and everyone borrowed a white dress from a friend so that no one would be shamed by a dress which didn't reflect status or wealth. Talmud teaches that in those days, the two most joyful days of the year were Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av! I gave a sermon a few years ago about joy and Yom Kippur (Unexpected Joy). But now that we don't dance in the fields and pick spouses at this full moon, how might we think about Tu b'Av and joy?

Tradition teaches that on this date, the children of Israel were redeemed from wandering in the wilderness, which they had done since leaving slavery in Egypt. One interpretation holds that the generation which had known slavery was so scarred by their experience that they couldn't make the leap to freedom. Those who had been born into terrible circumstances couldn't let go of the trauma of their past. So God decreed that the generation which had known slavery would live out the remainder of their lives in the wilderness: free from the constriction of slavery, but not yet ascending to the place of promise, to the next level of their spiritual development. On Tu b'Av, the next generation became ready to take on leadership and enter into the promised land.

All of us carry an imprint of our early life experiences. Often we also carry the imprint of our parents' life experiences: their successes and their struggles, their yearnings and satisfactions and regrets. Sometimes we are like the generation which left slavery: caught in remembering where we came from, caught up in analyzing the past, and therefore unable to let go of that past and move forward. For us as for our mythic ancestors, Tu b'Av can be a day to shed our attachments to those old narratives and to take the first steps in a new chapter of our lives. What are the old stories (about yourself, about your family, about where you come from, about others) which you need to shed in order to walk unencumbered into the promised land of the future you yearn for?

Tu b'Av gives us an opportunity to find joy in letting go. Letting go of our old stories -- letting go of our old constrictions -- letting go of the things which once defined us but have become like weights holding us down. Sometimes the old stories and old traumas we carry with us are like a bag full of stones. What would it feel like to set that bag down, to thank those old stories for serving their purpose, and then to build a cairn of those stones and leave it there and walk away? What new territory of the heart and spirit might open up to us if we could let go of old resentments and calcified beliefs about who we are? Can we imagine the lightness of setting down that burden and walking unencumbered into the promise of milk and honey, sustenance and sweetness?



Prayer for the Journey

Last week, while I was traveling, I received an email from A Way In / Mishkan Shalom which included a link to an interpretive translation, by Rabbi Yael Levy, of the traditional t'fillat ha derech, the Prayer for the Journey.

It resonated with me not only because of my literal travels lately, but also because it seems to me that every day is a journey. Every day we travel from morning to night; every day we journey further toward the unknown destination of life's end.

Don't we all need a prayer to comfort and strengthen us along the way?

May the One who flows through all creation lead us toward peace.

May we go forward in peace.

May each footstep be walked in the ways of peace.

And may we arrive to our desired destination for life, expansive joy and peace.

Let our paths be protected and all our journeys be safe. 

May blessings come through the work of our hands. 

Let us see the world with eyes of grace, love and compassion. 

And let our deepest values and visions find voice. 

Blessed is the Mystery that calls us present. 

Blessed is the open heart that listens.


Take notice, I send an angel to guide you on your way

and to bring you to the place I have prepared.            

(Exodus 23:20)


(From here: For Summer Travelers: Prayer for the Journey.)

Learning to greet collapse with joy: from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot

This concatenation of ritual -- this dance that begins on Tisha b'Av and ends on Sukkot, that begins with the mournful collapse of a house and ends with the joyful collapse of a house, this intentional spasm that awakens us and carries us through death and back to life again -- stands for the journey the soul is always on.

That's Rabbi Alan Lew in the book I begin rereading every year around this time. This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

Every year some of the same passages leap out at me. And every year there are some different lines which strike a chord. This is very like my experience of reading Torah every year, too.

This year I'm struck by his reminder that this period of holy time begins with the mournful collapse of a house -- the fallen Temples -- and ends with the joyful collapse of a house -- the sukkot we dismantle at the end of our festival season.

Impermanence is inevitable. The house is going to collapse. Our bodies fail. Our lives come to an end. But do we greet that inevitable collapse with anxiety, or with faith in whatever comes next?

[W]e can regard the ninth of Av as a time when we are reminded that catastrophes will keep recurring in our lives until we get things right, until we learn what we need to learn from them. Tisha b'Av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, beginning the process that culminates on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Tisha b'Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives -- in our alienation and estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and from others.

The moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation. For most of us this doesn't mean exile from the Land. But everyone experiences exile, even if only from the childhood innocence to which we can no longer return.

It is so tempting to deny that everyone feels alienation and exile. I want to pretend that I don't feel these things, and that my loved ones don't either. It is so tempting to put a band-aid over everything that hurts and pretend that we can make it okay.

But today is the day to face the fact that a band-aid isn't going to cut it. That loss and fear, sickness and death, alienation and estrangement are part of every life. And in that existential turning, we can begin to change how we relate to all of these.

As Rabbi Lew writes, "Tisha b'Av is the beginning of Teshuvah, the process of turning that we hope to complete on Yom Kippur, the process of returning to ourselves and to God." Today, because we are willing to face grief, we begin to return home.

Tisha b'Av has a hot tip for us: Take the suffering. Take the loss. Turn toward it. Embrace it. Let the walls come down. // And Tisha b'Av has a few questions for us as well. Where are we? What transition point are we standing at? What is causing sharp feeling in us, disturbing us, knocking us a little off balance? Where is our suffering? What is making us feel bad? What is making us feel at all? How long will we keep the walls up? How long will we furiously defend against what we know deep down to be the truth of our lives?

There's no escaping loss. All we can do is let the walls crumble -- the walls of "holding ourselves together," the walls of "bad things happen to them but not to me," the walls behind which we've allowed ourselves to become complacent and comfortable.

Because every moment is a transition point. And in every moment we can choose to accept the truth of our lives -- that life is temporary; that we come from Mystery and we return to Mystery; that we can't protect our loved ones from sorrow and pain.

All we can do is let the walls fall, and grieve their falling, and pour out our hearts before God -- throwing ourselves wholly into the journey toward that other home demolition, the one at Sukkot which we will greet with song and processional and joy.

Because if we can learn to greet that home demolition with joy, then maybe we can learn to greet the collapse which is at the heart of human existence with joy. Things fall apart. Can we use the next two months to learn how to greet that with celebration?

Baseless hatred: still here

This is a time of unusually polarized and polarizing discourse in the Jewish community. The situation in Israel and in Gaza is devastating. And so is the way I've seen people reacting to different beliefs and opinions regarding that devastation: who's at fault, which atrocities are "worse," whose suffering merits our attention. As though compassion were a zero-sum game. As though anyone "deserves" fear, destruction, and loss. As though feeling empathy for the Other weren't at the very heart of Torah.

Just last week I received an email from someone who sought to put me in cherem, excommunication, because this person perceives that my writings about how I hope peace and justice will come to Israel and Palestine are a threat to Jewish unity. One of my dear colleagues has received death threats directed at them and their children. Another colleague was the victim of a spoof press release, filled with hateful rhetoric, which purported to be from him and featured his full name and contact information.

Everyone I know who writes about the Middle East expects to receive hate mail. Often that hate mail is laced with profanity. Often it draws analogies to Nazis, insisting that one who holds the "wrong opinion" about Israel and Palestine is no better than a kapo, one who collaborates with the destruction of our people. This is hate mail written by Jews, to Jews. When we are feeling strong we shrug it off, try to laugh, say ruefully that it's the price one pays for having an opinion. But in truth, receiving this vitriol hurts.

What is the matter with people? This is a real question. What is wrong with us, that anyone imagines that these are appropriate ways to treat others? Harassment is never called-for. Neither is name-calling. And surely it should go without saying that no one should ever make death threats, or spread libelous allegations which could be damaging to someone's livelihood. This is not the way that human beings should treat each other. Ever. No matter how substantively we disagree, about anything.

The sages of the Talmud, I suspect, might agree:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed.

But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed baseless hatred. This teaches us that baseless hatred is considered of equal gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.

(Yoma 9b)

Baseless hatred, say our sages, is of equal gravity with the three worst sins in the Jewish lexicon. Because our community was unable to overcome its internal divisions; because of unkindness and inability to bend -- say our sages -- the second Temple fell. Tonight at sundown we will gather in fasting and prayer and lamentation, remembering that destruction, mourning every grief and brokenness we know. Have we learned anything about kindness and compassion in the last two thousand years?


Sorrow and illness, from near and from far

I've written half a dozen different openings to this post, but none of them feel as honest as beginning with this truth: sometimes it's hard to be far away when a loved one is sick. As a rabbi I've bumped into this truth frequently, ministering to people whose loved ones are distant. But there's a gulf between experiencing something vicariously, even through profound empathy, and experiencing it in one's own heart. As I wrote a while back (Spiritual life in the open), I am learning now to navigate the experience of praying for a loved one who is ill. Sometimes that experience stretches me. Often I feel that I am not handling it well enough. (What would "handing it well enough" even mean? I'm not sure. But the feeling arises even so.)

Intellectually I know that even if we were in the same place, there wouldn't be much I could do. I wouldn't be able to heal them. I wouldn't be able to make them feel better. I wouldn't be able to magically lift the exhaustion or the discomfort. I wouldn't be able to do away with the myriad insults of longterm illness, from the pic line through which chemicals daily flow, to the side effects of those chemicals, to the weariness which makes even previously-pleasant experiences too tiring to imagine. But when I am far away, not only can I not do any of those things, but I only get scattered glimpses of how my loved one is doing. I'm looking at them through a tiny gap in a moving curtain -- a phone call here, some emails there, none of which are enough to add up to a complete picture. I imagine that if I were there in person, I would be able to help more. At least I would be there.

That's what runs through my mind all the time. And then I spend a few days with my loved one, and I recognize the ways in which even being physically present doesn't hold a candle to the limitless fog of longterm illness with no definitive endpoint in sight. These are rocky shoals and unfamiliar waters, and there is no lighthouse guiding the way. Nothing is easy. And my heart overflows with emotion, because this is not what I want for my loved one, and I am entirely powerless to effect any change at all. What does it mean to try to maintain optimism in the face of a beloved's suffering? What does it mean to try to maintain hope? To what extent am I obligated to cultivate hope even if my loved one can't join me in feeling that hope? There is a low thrum of grief, as steady as the beating of my heart. Jewishly we say that descent is for the sake of ascent, but I can't see how to transform this.

Continue reading "Sorrow and illness, from near and from far" »